Around five years ago, a new series of gig posters started appearing around town. Screenprinted on thick stocks of paper, these bills were a far cry from most of the photocopied flyers taped to kiosks and stapled to telephone poles around town. Advertising The Super Eights at the Catacombs, Charlemagne at the Crystal Corner, and The Paragraphs at the Anchor Inn, among others, they suggested an approach to live music that was both more focused and likewise more playful than your typical club shows. They also were a harbinger of one of Madison's more influential music scenes this decade.
From these scattered posters and the shows they promoted grew the Wisconsin Pop Explosion, a four year fluorescence of music, art, and their combination in seasonal live music parties. The member bands -- mostly performing indie and psych-pop and rock of the lo-fi variety -- were the most visible element of the group. These groups included The Nervous System, The Super Eights, Charlemagne, Ric-Rac Attack, The Secret Wedding Party, Vid Libert, Sleeping in the Aviary, The Runners-Up, Gal and Lad. Their performances, though, often served as the centerpiece in a welter of crafts and cakes that, above all, was dedicated to playfully eliminating the barriers between its member artists' and musicians' parallel pursuits of creation.
The Wisconsin Pop Explosion will soon be no more, though, as two of its driving forces prepare to leave Madison, a regular reminder of summertime in this transient town. Nathan Meltz and Abby Kinchy -- husband and wife, drummer and bassist, poster maker and party planner -- will be departing shortly for upstate New York. Kinchy, who studies the intersection of science and activism in the realm of biotech and agriculture, has taken an academic teaching position at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.
Before they leave, though, a "top-notch sample" of the Explosion will be gathering for one last hurrah at the King Club on Saturday, July 7. In a pre-party interview with The Daily Page, Meltz reflects on the Wisconsin Pop Explosion, discussing its origins and achievements, the new album by The Super Eights, and art education in Madison.
The Daily Page: How did the Wisconsin Pop Explosion begin?
Meltz: The Explosion started from a combination of several different threads of things going on in Madison around 2003-2004. On one hand, my wife Abby [Kinchy] and I started having craft nights at our house, with regular participants being Carl Johns and his then-wife Tenaya Darlington (of Charlemagne), Allison Milley (of the Secret Wedding Party), Amber "Stuss" Woods (of Gal and Lad), and others. Then there was the fact that Carl and I were booking a lot of shows that put together our bands -- The Super Eights and Charlemagne -- with me doing screenprinted posters for the shows.
What made you decide to use a multimedia collective approach? The first time the term "collective" came into use was when Abby, Amber, and I were discussing how hard it is to put on good shows as a pop band, and getting booked on bills with a bunch of metal bands. Somehow, all of these music, art, and craft elements formed into the Wisconsin Pop Explosion, with the four core members at most meetings representing various bands: Carl, Allison, Bob Koch (of The Super Eights), and myself (The Super Eights, Ric-Rac-Attack, and later, The Nervous System). Later, as Carl moved away and became more focused on touring, Sleeping in the Aviary got involved, with Elliot Kozel contributing heavily to our efforts. It would take me forever to list what everyone in our entire group of 18-20 people did considering how multi-tasked everyone was.
In addition, while not formal members, the Milwaukee-based groups The Paragraphs and Batten Revue have been involved off and on with the Explosion. The two principal players in each were the video artists Stephen Wetzel and Renalto Umali.
What were you trying to do with the Explosion? How did so many different musicians and personalities fit together in the project?
The core concept was always to put together good shows that would be a bit more exciting and interesting for both the audience and the performers. At one point, we actually sat down and worked out a mission statement. Altogether, there were about a dozen-and-a-half different people involved, everyone bringing different skills that complemented one another. Some people primarily contributed musically, but most of the folks are pretty multi-talented, bringing music or graphic design skills, or writing and art talents. Stuff like that.
The Wisconsin Pop Explosion (and affiliated groups) have had a strong connection to venues like the Catacombs, the Anchor Inn and the King Club over its existence. What role did these and other locations played in building the scene?
With us, no single venue was all that important. In fact, part of what we've been interested in is coming up with venues that were something more than the average rock club. Some of the most fun events included Tenney Park for the Wisconsin Pop Field Day, or playing at the Common Wealth Gallery. Not that the rock clubs are bad, though. The events that charged a cover at the door at least helped us break even.
How did you plan shows and their accompanying themes?
The themes started as little brainstorming sessions between whoever came to the meetings. Abby was really good at generating themes, and came up with the original seed idea for more than one event. Once the theme was chosen, we all worked to put together the props (piñatas, sculpture, cupcakes) and visuals (projections, set pieces, and costumes).
Your shows have always felt more like a party than a typical night out with live music, complete with the baked goods and audience participation contests. How did this fit into your approach?
Again, it's all about making the event a bit more meaningful for everyone. If someone can see a good band n Valentine's Day and break apart a heart-shaped piñata at the same time, well, I hope that they're having a great time.
The theme for the Wisconsin Pop Implosion party is New Year's in summer. What kind of new start are you both hoping to make in the next twelve months? Will you continue to write music and print graphics?
A lot of things will be new. I'll be making prints, but out in Troy. With any luck, I'll bet more music projects going out east, too.
For The Super Eights, this will be a beginning and an end: A reunion/CD release before dissolving back into the ether at the end of the night. Many Wisconsin Pop Explosion bands are in the process or recording new records, though: Sleeping in the Aviary, The Runners-Up, and Vid Libert. These are all great new things.
How did The Super Eights get back together for this final reunion show?
This was Bob's idea. With me leaving, he coaxed John Nichols into finishing The Super Eights record. Then, it was just a matter of scrounging up the band's monies to fly our old keyboardist/guitarist Brady Potts out from L.A. After a good week of practicing, we're pretty much to speed on all the old songs.
What can fans expect to find in the album? Where will they be able to find it?
Oh, this should be at B-Side and Mad City Music Exchange. It's 20 songs of lo-fi pop nuggets, a greatest hits/misses type of record.
How did you get your start making gig posters in town?
I started making prints as an undergrad in art education here at the UW. I was lucky enough to teach at the tail end of Bill Weege's career; he's a well regarded Wisconsin printmaker who was at the university. I started screenprinting when I was playing in this touring band called Best Boy Electric (with John Nichols). We would go on to form The Super Eights.
Anyway, I started making screenprinted tour posters, and as Best Boy morphed into the Eights, continued to make them on a more regional level. Soon enough, Carl found out about them and started commissioning me for jobs, which started a fairly long partnership between the two of us in booking, playing, and promoting shows together. As I mentioned earlier, this was one facet that let to the birth of the Wisconsin Pop Explosion.
How many posters have you made, and where have they been displayed?
In all, I guess that I've made some 51 print editions that would qualify for the term "gig poster." You can find them at SuperEights Graphics.
They have mostly been displayed on kiosks around Madison, but also in various UW Art Department shows, a few Firecracker Studios shows, and at the Common Wealth Gallery. I'll also have an entry in a show of political prints at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, which will be in late August and early September.
What role has this visual element played for the Wisconsin Pop Explosion and for live music around Madison in general?
In the Wisconsin Pop Explosion, it's always been a central thing. As for the rest of the scene, there are pockets of people doing great stuff. Sam Johnson has been printing some great things for the Antelpes and Shazy Hade projects, for example. The Sector 5 folks have made on and off use of cool screenprinted posters too.
You wrote an essay titled "Farewell words from an elementary art teacher" on TDPF in which you offered ten recommendations for parents with children in Madison's schools. What was the most important lesson you learned as an art teacher in the district? Also, what do you think the status of art education is at the elementary level in town?
As someone who always jokes about the pointlessness of art, I really found out how much art means to people by observing its affects on kids. I've had kids who could care less about school, but had art as the one thing they could connect and engage with.
I took all my fourth and fifth graders to the Chazen, and one of my most troubled students got so into some of the paintings that I had to constantly keep my eye on him to keep him from touching things he thought were cool. Of course, he got even more excited aobut some of the violent religious depictions and the nudes ("knives and titties," he would yell), but hey, at least he was engaged.
In terms of art education in Madison, I am very worried. There will always be art for rich kids in this town, but the way little cuts just keep coming and coming, teachers are going to keep reducing what they can offer kids in the classroom. When my wife got a tenure track position at a great school out east, we weighed her career prospects and stability with mine, which were basically unstable and continually getting worse. In the end, as much as I loved by job, I resigned from the Madison Metropolitan School District because I could never be as certain I would have a job five or ten years from now.
Did you achieve your goals with the WPE? Was it fun?
Our goals were meager. I think the Wisconsin Pop Explosion evolved into something better than any of us could have thought possible.
Can we hold out any hope that there will be a return engagement for the Wisconsin Pop Explosion someday?
With Abby and I moving, the members agreed to close up shop. But like a comic book hero who dies, perhaps the Wisconsin Pop Explosion will rear its ugly head again someday.
What suggestions would you offer to somebody trying to build a multimedia music and arts group like the Wisconsin Pop Explosion in Madison?
Get one person who can write decently. Get another who can design and make art. Get a person who can work a computer, and another who can keep a calendar and plan ahead. Then, just add long Wisconsin winters, an obsession with cute things, interest in '60s pop songs, and old circus posters. Voila!
The Explosion will be taking its final bow tonight, ending their reign of art and music on this day of lucky number sevens. Kicking off around 10 p.m. at the King Club, the Wisconsin Pop Implosion will celebrate a new year with a solo psych-folk set by singer-songwriter Vid Libert, a final show of "anglophile pop and psych rock fuzz" by The Nervous System, and the reunited reunion CD release show by The Super Eights. Revelers are encouraged to bring party hats, toy jewelry, and noisemakers for the farewell party.